Sun, Apr 17, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Pro-Syrian named as new Lebanese prime minister

TRANSITION Najib Mikati was made prime minister in an attempt to end the political deadlock ahead of elections to be held as soon as next month

AP , Beirut, Lebanon

Lebanon's president has named moderate pro-Syrian lawmaker Najib Mikati as prime minister, breaking a political deadlock and reviving chances for holding parliamentary elections next month.

The elections are crucial for the opposition, which backed the Harvard-educated millionaire businessman in an effort to end the impasse in forming a government and open the way for the balloting that many believe will end Damascus' hold on parliament.

The legislature's term expires at the end of May.

The US has increased pressure on Lebanon to hold the vote without delay. The focus now should be on holding "free elections as soon as possible on schedule," US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman said after meeting with Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud earlier Friday.

Mikati's appointment came two days after Prime Minister-designate Omar Karami quit following several weeks of failed efforts at forming a government.

Mikati, 49, who was first elected to parliament in 2000, has recently distanced himself from the pro-Syrian camp. He still maintains business ties to Syria as well as a personal relationship with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Mikati boycotted Karami's ill-fated consultations to form a Cabinet last month in parliament. Instead, he prayed at the nearby grave of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose Feb. 14 assassination was the catalyst for massive anti-Syrian protests and international pressure that forced Syria to begin withdrawing its army from Lebanon.

Mikati served as Hariri's minister of public works and transport. He is a Sunni Muslim -- as all prime ministers must be under Lebanon's sectarian-based political system, which also allots the presidency to a Maronite Christian and the parliament speaker's post to a Shiite Muslim.

"We will be the symbol of moderation and national unity," Mikati declared from the presidential palace after his appointment.

"I say it from here that the hand is extended and the heart is open so that we all cooperate in the Lebanese interest," he said.

His first act after leaving the palace was to pray at Hariri's grave in downtown Beirut, saying he came to "show loyalty to the great martyr."

Mikati was appointed after President Emile Lahoud polled legislators or their representatives from the 128-member parliament, winning the backing of anti-Syrian opposition members and some of the ardent supporters of Syria.

Rafik Shalala, Lahoud's spokesman, said the president consulted with the speaker of parliament about the results and then summoned Mikati to the presidential palace and asked him to form the next government.

Mikati said he gained the support of 57 lawmakers. Another 38 backed his opponent, staunchly pro-Syrian Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad, officials said. Seven others did not name a candidate.

The government's main task is to steer an electoral bill through parliament and call an election. Opposition figures have said they feel confident the vote will end pro-Syrian dominance of the legislature.

Mikati set three main priorities: parliamentary elections; following up on an international investigation into Hariri's assassination; and reviving the flagging economy.

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